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What is a Chief of Staff, and What Responsibilities and Skills Do They Have?

A chief of staff is a leader, decision-maker, and advisor. Find out how to master their particular responsibilities and skills.

By Kate Dagher  •   April 26, 2022  •   7 min read

A chief of staff (COS) position is one that can often seem ambiguous and multifaceted. The COS is in charge of several high-level responsibilities across the organization, working with the CEO, presidents, and vice presidents. Central to these responsibilities is managing and nurturing the human capital of the company. The success of any office can be attributed to the employees and management, which means human resources are one of the most important points of focus for any successful business. A COS makes important plans, generates ideas, mitigates issues, and dares to innovate. 

This article is going to cover everything you need to know about the chief of staff position, and provides an overview of the key responsibilities and principal skill set needed to become a chief of staff.

What does a chief of staff do? 

A chief of staff is an executive decision-maker and planner that works as a partner to the leaders of an organization. The COS innovates, drives ideas forward, mitigates complex problems, and communicates important ideas to employees. Not only does the COS make high-level decisions in conjunction with other leaders, but they also make a plethora of decisions on a day-to-day basis. As decision-makers and process drivers, they have to be up to date on and aware of all areas of the organization. For this reason, the chief of staff can be seen as a jack of all trades, because they don’t have a specific job description but instead they bridge strategic objectives and materialize them. A COS is involved in all essential services and decisions. 

1 Responsibilities

The COS is involved in a lot of meetings so they can be aware of all the important happenings within the organization. Their participation in meetings means generating a consensus, enforcing and modifying strategies and processes, and ensuring strategic buy-in from all parties. The chief of staff is also hugely involved with the communications materials and disseminating them. They inform on, initiate, and lead special projects, guide and support the development of employees, and take the time to counsel and advise other leaders. This position is analytical in that the COS is in charge of gathering data on the progress and results of projects, courses, and training. They also hire, train, and mentor staff at various levels throughout the company. A COS acts as an executive coach, engages in performance coaching, develops process reviews, documents findings, and shares them with other leaders. Needless to say, they have a lot of varying responsibilities.

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2 Different levels

Although the chief of staff is in a leadership role, they’re very difficult to place in an organizational chart because they work at every level throughout the organization. This is a multilateral role, where the COS’s responsibilities and every day tasks depend on the most urgent areas of attention within the company. Often an organizational chart places the chief of staff somewhere between C-level executives and director-level employees. That said, in many other organizations the chief of staff sits at the same level as the executive team, so this placement really depends on their level of experience and active involvement. 

3 Qualifications 

A chief of staff typically has an educational background in management, corporate communications, human resources, or commerce, but any kind of education can prepare you to take on this role if you have a keen interest in business and business processes. A COS typically has at least 8-10 years of managerial experience, strong leadership abilities, an impressive ability to understand and use data to the company’s advantage, and experience working with confidential and high-profile projects. To obtain a leadership position you’ll need to: 

  • have good emotional intelligence; 
  • be able to communicate extremely well orally and in writing;
  • have a desire to coach, mentor, guide, and advise others; and 
  • be keen to help improve training and development initiatives. 

Project management experience is also crucial to this role since you need to be comfortable working with different streams of the business to make informed decisions.

Chief of staff skills 

1 Leadership

A chief of staff needs to have the ability to motivate and inspire others, regardless of whether they’re helping someone complete a task or realize a common vision, or encouraging employees to enroll in different training opportunities; the ability to lead is a must. A COS needs to be in touch with different individuals’ strengths so these skills can be harnessed in particular areas of projects and so the COS can encourage as many employees as possible to reach their full potential.

2 Critical thinking

The ability to think critically and problem solve is central to the skills of a COS. Because the chief of staff is involved in many (if not all) high-level decisions, the person in this role needs to be able to actively conceptualize, apply, synthesize, and evaluate different kinds of information from several streams throughout the organization. This information can be gathered or generated by observing, experiencing, reflecting, reasoning, or communicating, so self-awareness is key in the ability to think critically and make the most appropriate decision possible in any given situation. 

3 Communication 

Good communication is an essential skill if you want to be a good chief of staff. Whether you’re a naturally strong communicator or not, it’s essential to have organized and recurring meetings with the teams you work with as a COS. This means using a meeting management software like Fellow so you can gather to have productive team meetings and meaningful one-on-ones, build collaborative meeting agendas, record decisions, and keep each other accountable. This way, you and your team stay organized and transparent with one another and are on track to achieve your goals. 

4 Project management

To be an effective COS, you’ll need to have project management skills. Because you need to understand and be aware of the principal tasks, responsibilities, and projects of each team within the organization, having experience managing projects in different areas of the business is a huge asset. It’s a good idea to take some project management courses if you haven’t had a specific role as a project manager so you can understand the requirements of a project from its initiation to completion. Within project management, it’s important to have experience working with multiple internal and external stakeholders as well as delivering high-level presentations to executive teams. 

5 Knowledge of business standards

As a COS, you need to be well versed in the world of compliance. This means you’re knowledgeable on the business standards that need to be met and maintained by the organization. Making sure all policies (including legal, real estate, media, health and safety, and confidentiality policies) are being followed is important for ensuring the company’s compliance and protection. You need to have a good amount of experience reviewing contracts, policies, non-disclosure agreements, and other important documentation so you’re used to working with densely written documentations and reports. This way, you’ll be confident when deciphering whatever comes your way and you’ll be able to communicate compliance requirements to others involved. 

6 Policy development

Policy development goes hand in hand with compliance. Because you can’t have one without the other, it’s important for the chief of staff to have experience in both reviewing policies and developing them. This means that the COS has the ability to decide what the organization should aim to achieve, what is being done to achieve the goal, how these achievements can be reached and at what price, who needs to be involved, and the timeline required. Policy development helps the organization run as effectively as possible and simultaneously ensures the business objectives are in line with and in full compliance with the legal and social environment. 

7 Adaptability

Adaptability is another key skill the chief of staff demonstrates. An adaptable COS is flexible, open-minded, and willing to change to find success. The COS typically has to manage unusual and unforeseen situations, so the ability to make sound decisions on the spot is essential. It’s also worth noting that there don’t tend to be any explicit or formal instructions given to a COS to follow. As a result, this leader needs to be dynamic, well-informed, and confident in their own judgment so they can make the most appropriate decisions for the company as a whole—and often, these decisions are difficult to make. Typically, the COS is someone who learns quickly because they are adaptable. One way to build your adaptability is continuing to try new things and challenging your problem-solving skills in different situations. 

Parting advice 

A chief of staff is intuitive, informed, and autonomous. This position carries a great deal of responsibility and requires a diverse background of experience. If you’re interested in becoming a COS or improving your effectiveness in this position, it’s a good idea to spend time working on specific projects within different streams of the business so you can acquire a solid understanding of the principal responsibilities and aims of each group within the organization. Find opportunities to practice your leadership skills through mentoring, coaching, and facilitating different training and development initiatives for employees. You should also be sure to give frequent feedback and ask for it in return so you can continue to gain the skills you need to become a COS or become even more successful than you already are!

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